In this week’s column, I invited Amanda Stringer, CEO of the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra (TSO), to share how she and TSO’s board of directors made important decisions before and during the pandemic to serve community and advance their mission. She shares four principles on how to run a vibrant nonprofit organization.
Several years ago, when I proposed a balanced budget to the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra’s finance committee, a committee member challenged me. His comment ? “I don’t see any vision or aspiration in this budget. It doesn’t tell me where we’re going.
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I was puzzled, a little upset and almost insulted by it. I was so proud to have counted every penny and have such mastery of numbers, but for this board member, the budget was a bummer, without aspiration or vision.
Looking back, I see what a wonderful learning opportunity this was for me, and I grew in my understanding of the nonprofit world as a result of this reluctance from a board member.
This meeting subsequently led me to understand four principles of how to run a vibrant nonprofit organization: 1) if you don’t grow, you die; 2) venture capital should be part of the budget of a non-profit organization; 3) nonprofits should not only balance their budgets, but should strive for surpluses every year, and 4) vision should always guide decision making.
Now, having come out on the other side of the COVID pandemic, I look back at all the businesses in which the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra (TSO) has tried, failed, succeeded, and thrived.
Without a doubt, it is because of the difficult questions of an informed board of directors, the thoughtfulness of the members and, ultimately, their willingness to be proactive and progressive that the OSB has been successful. It has become part of the DNA of the TSO Board of Directors to discuss, debate, put hearts and minds around the table, and then make important, sometimes difficult decisions.
Over the years, TSO has embarked on social outreach projects that have brought our organization to face tough questions about our mission and our willingness to “lean on.” For example, our “Requiem of Resistance” concert, which powerfully told the story of Jewish prisoners in Terezin, forced the Board of Trustees to approve the hiring of security guards to scan attendees for safety. ensure that no spectator entered with a weapon.
Two years later, despite the concerns of some prominent members of the community, TSO’s Board of Directors voted to move forward by presenting Joel Thompson’s “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed”, a work that not only quotes seven black men as they died at the hands of authority figures, but also captures a provocative emotional intensity.
This was almost two years before the tragic death of George Floyd and the toll our country has faced over the past twelve months. The TSO’s job performance went from 7,000 views to 61,000 on YouTube after Floyd’s death.
There have been fewer public success stories that are just as proactive and ambitious. TSO’s Board of Directors was one of the first symphony councils in the country to approve a fully virtual season for our ensemble, recognizing as early as April 2020 that in-person events were unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. .
And just last month, the board took the premonitory step of requiring musicians to be vaccinated to perform in the 2021-2022 season in order to protect our musicians and our audience.
Finally, I come back to “venture capital”. In April 2020, the TSO Board of Directors approved a budget with a large deficit to continue playing musicians, launch a virtual season, invest in the technology needed to do so (and quickly learn how to use it) and, above all, go ahead. boldly and definitively in the face of the crisis.
We took a leap of faith to spend our reserves and eventually we were able to use grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Council on Culture and Arts, the Florida Department of Cultural Affairs and Leon County. CARES. These sources, along with two PPP loans and the generous support of our patrons and donors, allowed us to end the season with a surplus.
This early investment in technology through “venture capital” has been critical to our success during the pandemic. Due to the board’s willingness to make tough decisions during tough times, TSO’s 2021-22 season has been an artistic and financial success.
And certainly, the board’s decision to switch to a new kind of season was a courageous one given that it was taken at a Zoom meeting, not a meeting where members were seated one-on-one. opposite each other. For me, it demonstrated the incredible level of trust they have in each other, the trust that underlies their admirable tenacity.
As we emerge from the COVID pandemic, the TSO is moving forward with a 2021-22 season in person although it has no guarantee that our normal sources of income will be available. But also with a plan to aggressively seek out new dollars and renew existing support.
Our orchestra, filled with a large representation of artists, moves happily through a new landscape, led by an intrepid board of directors. We believe progressive and proactive boards must take the bold steps necessary for nonprofits to thrive and eagerly await the new challenges of a post-COVID world.
Amanda Stringer, DMA, is CEO of the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra. She can be contacted at [email protected] Notes on Nonprofits is produced by Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, President of Stansbury Consulting. Send your comments and questions to [email protected] and connect to Facebook every second Tuesday for Notes on Nonprofits Live.
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